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Home >Politics >Policy >Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev highlights the danger of individualism in business

Companies, chief executive officers (CEOs), wannabe-CEOs, just about everyone is in search of a purpose. Every year, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev’s Isha Foundation conducts a leadership programme for entrepreneurs and CEOs at its ashram in Coimbatore. Conceptualized and conducted by him, and facilitated by people like Dr Ram Charan, an acclaimed CEO coach to Fortune 500 companies, the residential programme hosts entrepreneurs and CXOs in search of meaning. They learn from other CEOs and leaders who serve as mentors or share their stories. Over the years, the programme and Vasudev himself have become destination points for CXOs looking for meaning. This interviewer attended one of Isha Foundation’s first such programmes two years ago and was impressed. One, the programme offered deep insights into the nature of the self and business. Two, it combined wisdom and pragmatism of the kind I hadn’t encountered at a B-school. Ahead of the next such programme, which will be held between 27 and 30 November (details at ishafoundation.org), this writer interviewed Vasudev. Apart from Vasudev and Charan, Tata Sons’ chairman emeritus Ratan Tata and Dr Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd’s co-chairman and CEO G.V. Prasad are key “resource leaders" for the programme. Edited excerpts:

As an entrepreneur, how should you measure your life? What is the value you bring to the table as an entrepreneur?

Some entrepreneurs take to entrepreneurship as a mission and others because nobody is willing to employ them—not necessarily because of incompetence, but because they are not structured to fit in as an employee. Employment is a way of boxing somebody into something to produce results. There may be people who cannot be boxed or are not shaped to fit a box. They choose self-employment. They may become big employers depending on their levels of success.

Eventually what begins as an economic activity becomes a passion. If you are employed in a company, you may work 8-10 hours. If you are self-employed though, you may have to put in 18-20 hours. You might as well learn to deploy this time into your growth and well-being.

There is a certain heady feeling about being an entrepreneur. That you are successful by your own means gives a man a sense of pride. But I am not interested in that. It is the sense of involvement that comes with being an entrepreneur that is transformative.

Are you suggesting here it is difficult for somebody who is not an entrepreneur to get the same heady feeling of being involved?

I am not suggesting that. You can be a volunteer at the Isha Yoga Center. Volunteers have nothing to gain. But they are involved. To be a volunteer means to be willing. There is nobody to whip you to run at full speed. You go at full speed because you said a big “Yes" to life.

I am not saying an employee cannot feel that way either. But unfortunately many don’t because there is no sense of belonging. This is one thing I am always trying to instil in people. If you want to do something, do it. But don’t shift your focus every other day. If you put your heart and soul into what you are doing, that is a great thing to do. Is it the best thing to do? No. But it is a great thing to do.

Why do you say it is not the best thing to do?

If I say there is a best thing, then what I do is better than what you’re doing. That is not a good way to approach life. What I am doing is a great thing to do in my experience. It can become in your experience as well if you give yourself totally to what you are doing. Entrepreneurs do that because of the atmosphere they live in.

In the past, you’ve spoken of compromises an entrepreneur has to make. We all agree it is not easy to be idealistic. But being idealistic may not be wise either. How do you be pragmatic, do the right thing and still do good business?

All of these are unnecessary. In our country, we largely depend on doing the right things using individual values, morals and ethics. That is dangerous because all of these can be bent and reshaped to fit your situation.

This is because the laws that govern business in our country are not clear. People know that within the boundaries of law, they can do many wrong things and then fix them with their own morals and ethics. This is not a reliable way of doing business. My values are for my own aesthetic, not for business.

Law should govern business. It is like playing football. You can kick the ball any which way you want to. But you can’t touch it with your hands.

Because laws have not been framed properly, people never thought of a nation as an entrepreneurial venture. We thought by agitating we can build a nation. Only now we are figuring out that if we are to flourish, we need business and need proper legislation. If laws are enforceable, I don’t have to worry whether you are good or bad. That’s not my business. There should be no question of personal reliability. The laws must be clear that if somebody breaks them, they must pay for it. Then all this talk of values will go away.

What kind of people ought to be framing these laws?

People with business sense! Not idealistic people. You can’t do business with that. Who can conduct any business in India without paying somebody something? Even a beggar pays somebody to squat at a prime location. In a temple, people bribe the priest to get a ringside view.

Is it morally imperative for business to grow? Growth can benefit the most number of people. But growth and greed are seen as partners.

When you grow, it is growth. When somebody else grows, it is greed. It’s time we acknowledge that when somebody else grows, that is also growth. There is no room for greed.

Because our values are driven by economics, we think of growth in economic terms. If you thought of growth as human consciousness, human capability and economic growth, then growth wouldn’t be a problem. Right now, growth is unipolar. This is the first generation where conversations around dinner and tea are about the economy. Nobody ever did that 25 years ago, except the Americans.

Growth has to be multi-dimensional. Then greed is good. I want all spiritual seekers as greedy as possible, as lustful if you ask me. I use the word lust because people don’t understand the word “desire" strongly enough. That is why we are trying to bring spiritual processes into business. If they can see something valuable in it, then they will pursue it as well.

In family-managed businesses (FMBs), is there a breakdown of trust between generations? The younger generation wants a Google kind of culture, while the patriarchs see it as an infringement. How can this chasm be crossed?

I won’t bring trust into this. The younger generation inherited a business that got successful by using certain methods. The patriarchs trust that method because it produced results. As you get older, you don’t want new things. This is because there is a certain depletion of the mind and a lack of integrity in the body.

The younger generation is usually trying to imitate someone else’s success. You said “of the Google kind", but at Google, fun is on the surface. Else it is dead serious. For instance, Chade-Meng Tan there is formally designated as the Jolly Good Fellow of Google. He is a jolly guy who talks to you about nothing around work. But this is to soften you up before you go in for a meeting.

Being cool is fashionable. Whatever is fashionable in America becomes fashionable everywhere. But in America the “Thank God it’s Friday" culture pervades. That means nobody likes the five days they work. The culture of “weekend is life and the rest of the week is torture" has gone deep into the American psyche. This culture is growing in cities in India.

So if the younger generation tries something for the sake of it, it can be disastrous. But if they really have a better way of doing things, they must be allowed to do it. They will either transform their parents, or themselves or perhaps just quit their inheritance and find some ways to do things that work for them.

If there were a tool kit that you could offer the older generation at FMBs, what would it be?

There are no formulas to success. What has worked in one situation will not work in another. As an entrepreneur, you must show interest not just in your business, but everything. You pay attention indiscriminately to everything and provide the same level of attention to everything you see. It is very important if you want to craft something of significance.

If you have to become a successful entrepreneur, this is something you have to cultivate. Only then are you an unprejudiced being. If you have different levels of attention to what is yours and what is not yours, you’re gone. Yes, there are some you have to do more with and some you have to do less with. But in terms of attention, there should be no discrimination. That is when your life will be a continuous process of growth.

When FMBs come to you for advice, what strikes you the most?

Don’t forget, entrepreneurship is an economic activity. It need not be raised to Heaven. It must be conducted on Earth to the extent it is necessary for you and me. That is why I say no entrepreneur should become unipolar.

I have met enough people from the older generation who have worked hard to get to where they are. So those who created have a different sense of everything from those who landed into comfort. Therefore, it is very important that the older generation seeks sensible cooperation from the younger generation.

There is always the risk they may fail. But the risk that you could have failed also existed when you started. It’s just that you succeeded. But if you don’t create a challenge, they will not understand what you are talking about. Only then, they will become entrepreneurs. Else, they will become landlords. They need to be on their toes, not on their backsides.

Is there a uniquely Indian way of doing things for FMBs that we have not looked at?

How business transitions in India is very different. In the West, it transitions from the first generation to professionals. In India, it generally moves to the second generation whether they are fit for it or not. They don’t know how to professionalize because they don’t trust anybody other than their blood. So the purity of pedigree creates certain problems. This is a very small resource you are looking at. If you have two or three children, you are trying to find a leader within the three instead of looking at 500 and picking up the best.

In the past, Indian families used to groom them in-house, at least the boys, when they were as young as 7-8 years old. They’d start writing accounts and observe everything, but never get to touch the money until they turned 18. By then, they understood the ins and outs of business. These are not processes that can be written down in a book because every business is run secretively in India. It is changing now. It is being corporatized.

How does an individual know what kind of a leadership style to adopt in any given situation?

There is no such thing as leadership style. If you are a true leader, you don’t think you are a leader. People think you are one. You just do what you have to do. The style of functioning today is according to the reality of today. If today people are sensitive, you operate accordingly. Tomorrow if you are dealing with a bunch of donkeys, you can’t operate in the same way. But whatever you do, do it in style.

Where do ideas like philanthropy and corporate social responsibility (CSR) stand in your scheme of things?

What CSR means is that the government expects a business to do what it is failing at. Non-governmental organizations would not exist if the government works at its best. If we are playing a game, the rules should stay in place. It can’t change in the middle of the game.

You said 30% income tax. If I am paying that, leave me alone. Don’t tell me I must start a school, a hospital, etc. Don’t try to make me feel guilty about my success. That is not good for a market economy.

How do you develop a strategy to learn from others on the one hand and go with your gut on the other?

The gut is not the most important part of your body. It’s full of shit. It’s a fact. This feeling from your gut comes because when faced with indecisiveness, fear accompanies. When fear comes, it begins to function in your gut because fear and bowel movement are connected. That’s why you say “shit scared". So when indecisiveness, trepidation and a little bit of fear enter you, there will be movement in your belly. Don’t think it is an intelligent movement. But at the same time when fear comes, you perceive danger. That’s when you become alert. When danger is there, people experience more alertness than they ever know in their whole life. Because of that you may see better than what you may otherwise. So that is how this gut thing has come.

But I would much rather use my brain. When you use your brain, there is a certain level of intelligence that tries to work through a situation and there is information from others.

After weighing these inputs, you decide whether to use your intelligence or information. Choosing one over the other in every situation is foolish. To what extent is your intelligence better than the information you have on hand is a judgment you arrive at. When I am driving in a strange country, I just listen to the lady’s voice on the global positioning system. I don’t use my intelligence. So that’s a judgment you make.

Charles Assisi is a senior journalist at work on his first entrepreneurial venture that will debut this year. He maintains a personal website on www.audaciter.net andtweets on @c_asssisi

Mint is a media partner for the Isha Foundation’s leadership programme.

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